Voters instantly see through style - they like it of course but they vote for substance says ex-Fore

One of the more fatuous myths of the Blair years is that they were dominated by spin. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Blair, Brown and the other architects of New Labour after 1992 put in place one of the most substantial political programmes that modern Europe has seen.

It was a mixture of old and new, borrowed and blue, Clinton tax credits (otherwise known as a negative income tax first proposed by Milton Friedman in the 1950s) fused with Nordic ideas on labour market.

There was drama like making the Bank of England independent and inviting business leaders like David Simon, the boss of BP, to join the government.

There was political substance in forcing the Labour Party and its activists to accept that new times required new ideology and the symbolism of abolishing Clause 4 was one of the most substantial reforms of a party constitution seen since in Europe since Willy Brandt modernised the German Social Democratic Party to make it fit to government four decades previously.

Voters instantly see through style. They like it of course. But they vote for substance. The 1968 generation on the left won all the style wars of the 1980s. Mrs Thatcher had substance and won the vote wars.

Historically, substance has generally won out over style in politics. No-one was better at one-liners, headline catching phrases, and brilliant media manipulation than Disraeli. But he had to spend most of glittering career in opposition because the Liberals of the mid-19th century had the solid substance of sound economics, patient reform of institutions, and in Gladstone, a man of austere, moral, rigour that appealed to a public that adores style but votes substance.

The 20th century politician who had more style than all other prime ministers combined was Winston Churchill. No phrase of Blair inspired by Campbell can match Churchill’s immortal sound-bites and his brilliant spinning of his own career and achievements.

But it was the style-less Clement Attlee, who had the substance in 1945 to win with a massive majority and put in place a domestic and foreign policy programme that re-invented Britain. When the Tories won in 1951, it was because they had side-lined the style of Churchill and also created a programme of substance based on solid hard work in thinking through policy and completely re-shaping the Conservative Party to fit modern times.

Today, the parallels are striking. Yes, to the Notting Hill Guardianistas, the charm of the ex-PR man turned MP and then party leader, David Cameron, is exciting. Look at the drama or the Old Etonians around Mr Cameron. Who does not enjoy seeing the pictures of Boris Johnson, or laugh at the Europhobe jokes of William Hague?

But all that glistens is not bold. The lack of substance in Conservative thinking cannot be replaced by Mr Cameron’s smile. The Tory leader is like Ségolene Royal, who also emerged from nowhere and with a lovely smile and an outreach politics swept past the old socialists in France to become their presidential candidate.

Her opponent now the president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, is no slouch at style. But he offered substance and specific quantifiable policy proposals which the lovely smile from and promise of sympathy from the socialist could not match.

Substance and style are not opposite. Good substance creates belief and confidence. A good message can be undermined by poor messaging. But style without substance is not enough. A smile is just a smile. The Conservatives are making a fatal mistake if they think a Blue Peter-style David Cameron will win them the next election. Celebrity culture is now boring the public. The politicians who offer substance will do best.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office